Google kicks off its I/O developer conference next Wednesday and if there's one thing that could steal the limelight from Android, Chrome and all the other Google projects, it's Glass. See also: Google I/O 2013 keynote live video.
Glass is a head-mounted computer worn like regular glasses that can serve up data and record a potentially limitless stream of information as the wearer goes about his or her day. The early stage product made a splash at last year's I/O, when a group of Glass-wearing skydivers landed on the roof of the conference center in San Francisco while Google co-founder Sergey Brin delivered the keynote address.
Now that Glass has gotten into the hands of some developers and testers, it has sparked questions about how it will be used in the real world, and also about its implications for privacy. One area of controversy deals with how easily -- and surreptitiously -- the device can take photographs. Last week, a developer rolled out an app called Winky that lets users take pictures with Glass just by winking their eye.
The extent to which Google will address those issues next week is another matter. I/O is a conference for developers and app builders, so if Google does broach the privacy concerns around Glass, it may do so from a developer best practices standpoint. Google could provide guidelines for developers, like telling them to make the unit turn off in certain circumstances, like when a person is driving, or to display notifications only at appropriate times, said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. The company could also give itself the ability to shut down certain Glass apps if developers do not abide by the rules.
Taking that approach would help build some privacy into the product from the outset, which Google does not do enough of, said John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog. "The mindset of most engineers and developers is not to focus on those privacy questions," he said.
Google Glass has already seen some opposition from businesses that have said they would ban it, and from West Virginia state representative Gary Howell, who wants a ban on Glass while driving.
Despite the safety and privacy concerns, a product like Glass seems inevitable in a world of always-connected mobile devices and smartphones, and some think people should just get used to the idea.
"We're starting to see where morality plays into technology, but cameras are already everywhere," said Forrester analyst Michael Facemire. "[Glass] will only be a small change to what people see as being acceptable," he said.
In its current form, Google Glass includes a small, prism-shaped display that hangs in front of the wearer's right eye, next to a tiny camera. When activated, the device displays a menu of functions that can be navigated with voice commands or by swiping the side of the glasses with a finger. The display occupies a fraction of the wearer's field of view, and is semi-transparent so it doesn't obstruct the person's vision.
If developers have a lot of questions about Glass, they might not have a lot of time to ask them. According to the I/O schedule, Google has allotted three hours to the product during the three-day conference, spread out over four sessions on Thursday.
Two topics that receive a lot more attention on the I/O lineup are Google's Android OS and its Chrome Web browser and OS. The company is expected to unveil a new version of Android at the conference, though details are scant on what the release might offer over the current Jelly Bean version. Google has scheduled more than 80 sessions on Android and Chrome between Wednesday and Friday.
Following Andy Rubin's replacement as head of mobile by Sundar Pichai, who now oversees both Android and Chrome, industry watchers would like to see more clarity around how Google views the two OSes, and whether it will roll out new developer tools that bring them closer together.
It's a question that's come up before at Google I/O, but the management changes could help bring the matter to a head. "I'd like to see more of Pichai's strategy here, especially in terms of the interplay between Android and Chrome," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. "There should be more stickiness between the products," she added.
Currently, there's a version of the Chrome browser for Android, but there are no Android apps that run in Chrome on laptops.
Analysts would also like to see new tools to help developers better promote and monetize their Android apps, and more discussion on how developers can integrate their apps into Google's social network with its recently launched Google+ Sign-In product.
There is even some wishful thinking that Google might open up about its supposed Google X R&D facility, a secret lab where it's rumored to be working on a cable-based "space elevator," to transport objects from Earth to outer space.
If there was any way to top last year's skydiving theatrics, said Consumer Watchdog's Simpson, that would be it.